A Nocona man named a person of interest in the 2015 disappearance of a local 18-year-old pleaded guilty today to preying on the boy when he was a minor, announced Acting U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas Prerak Shah.
Hours after the court declared a mistrial due to juror injury, Ricky Dale Howard, 59, pleaded guilty to sexual exploitation of a child.
“Although much of what happened to this young boy remains a mystery, we know one thing for sure: Before he went missing, he suffered at the hands of a child sex predator. He was preyed upon by a man his family knew and trusted,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Shah. “Our fervent hope is that one day, he will be found. In the meantime, we are proud to put the man who abused him behind bars.”
FBI Dallas Special Agent in Charge Matthew J. DeSarno said, “We will continue to work with our partners to seek justice for this victim’s family and do all that we can to ensure that vulnerable members of our community are protected from those who seek to do them harm. The defendant will be held accountable for his reprehensible conduct, and we will remain committed to investigating anyone who seeks to exploit children.”
According to evidence presented in court before the mistrial was declared, law enforcement obtained several of Mr. Howard’s computers during an investigation into the disappearance of a high school senior who was reported missing on April 1, 2015, just two weeks after his 18th birthday.
On the computers, investigators found sexually explicit images that appeared to show Mr. Howard sexually abusing the missing boy. In pleading guilty, Mr. Howard admitted that he enticed the minor into engaging in sexually explicit conduct for the purpose of creating a visual depiction.
At trial, the boy’s mother testified she and her children had been close with the Howard family since the boys were children. Tami Diehl said her son began performing odd jobs for Mr. Howard during middle school.
Law enforcement officers testified that following the boy’s disappearance, Mr. Howard told police the last time he’d seen the victim was the weekend before he went missing, when the pair attempted to repair his broken-down truck. Several days into the missing person investigation, an officer observed a burn pit with several incinerated computers on Mr. Howard’s property.
Two years after the disappearance, Ms. Diehl discovered a small handheld tape recorder hidden in the back of a bathroom cabinet. The tape recorder contained audio of Mr. Howard asking himself polygraph questions pertaining to his sexual interest in young boys.
Shortly thereafter, investigators re-examined the missing persons case. Recalling the incinerated computers, officers asked Mr. Howard’s ex-wife and later his daughter for the computers, which were examined by analysts at the FBI’s North Texas Regional Computer Forensic Lab. Ms. Diehl, one of Mr. Howard’s sons, and Mr. Howard’s ex-wife all identified the missing victim in redacted versions of photographs extracted from the computers.
Mr. Howard now faces up to 30 years in federal prison.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Dallas Field Office, Wichita Falls Resident Agency, the Montague County Sheriff’s Office, and the Nocona Police Department conducted the investigation with the assistance of the Montague County District Attorney’s Office and the Texas Rangers. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Brandie Wade and Nancy Larson are prosecuting the case. U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor presided over trial in Fort Worth.
Department of Justice
Office of the U.S. Attorney
Northern District of Texas